2.20.2014

Welcome to Lomié: Cameroon in Miniature


If Cameroon has the right to be called “Africa in Miniature”, then Lomié undeniably has the right to be called “Cameroon in Miniature”. Before I arrived, I had anticipated Lomié to be rather monolinguistic, monoethnic, and monocultural due to its remoteness in the rainforest, but it took not even a full day in Lomié to realize that my initial assumptions were terribly wrong (What’s the age old adage? When you assume you make an ‘ass’ out of ‘you’ and ‘me’?). Rather than the one dimensional culture I had anticipated to find, I was instead confronted with a very diverse population in every way possible. Not to mention there is now a redheaded, freckled, and as white as can be girl from Chicago there!

Ironically, most of those living in Lomié are not from Lomié, or even from the East, with the exception being the Baka, who easily win given that they were the first ever inhabitants of what is now Cameroon. When I ask around town where people are originally from, if their answer is either “Lomié” or “a nearby village”, it’s like finding a hidden treasure. Of all the people I know in Lomié, I know perhaps two (not including Baka) who are originally from Lomié – one of them being my old counterpart, Jules (who, did I mention, retired three weeks ago without notifying me, leaving me in a panic to find a new counterpart to bring to IST and to work with for the next two years – enter, Sylvie!!). The rest of Lomié’s inhabitants are from as far as Cameroon’s borders reach and some are even from neighboring countries, such as Republic of Congo (shout out goes to my favorite store owner, whom I call ‘mon ami Congolese Dude’, who began carrying dark chocolate, chickpeas, and oatmeal per my incessant requests).

Oddly enough, Lomié is a bit like Chicago and its ethnicized neighborhoods. In Chicago we have Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy, and Little West Africa (or so I named it) and most immigrants tend to associate with those who also emigrated from their respective country. The same goes for Lomié. While our neighborhoods (quartiers) here are not yet so defined as being able to be called Little Douala or Little Garoua, it is nearly getting to that point. The biggest ethnic groups and regions represented in Lomié are as follows (in order from most represented in Lomié to the smallest, so far as I can tell): The Bamoum of Foumban (in the West Region), the Fulbe/Fulani from around Garoua and Maroua (North and Extreme North Regions), the Douala of Douala (the Littoral Region), and the Anglophones of the Southwest.

If you meet someone in Lomié and they are clearly not from the North, it is safe to assume they are from Foumban. Literally everyone is from Foumban! While many of the Bamoum must get confused as to why I begin to roll my eyes when I hear they are from Foumban, it never ceases to amaze me how such a large population of Foumban is in the middle of the rainforest. The Bamoum here all hang out together, so if you know one, you know many. They all also tend to do the same work all in centreville or the marche. Yackouba is from Foumban. My moto friends Moussa and Bouba are from Foumban. Danny’s counterpart, Zakari, is from Foumban. The market ladies…all from Foumban. Just about anyone who works between Yackouba’s bamboo shop in centreville to the market mamas at the outskirts of the market are from Foumban, except for the two small pockets of Northerners, which I’ll get to. Alert the authorities because there is a Bamoum takeover happening. There you have it, Little Foumban, in all its glory. 

Me creepin' on my new neighbors through my door
The second biggest population, perhaps being just as large as the Bamoum population, are the Fulbe and Fulani from the North and Extreme North. I expected people from the Grand South to be in Lomié, but I did not except such a significant population of Muslim Northerners! Like the Bamoum, all the Grand Northerners tend to be friends with each other and converse in Fulfulde and mumble “Jamm Nassara!” as I walk by. Also like the Bamoum, the Northerners have pockets of Lomié which they claim as their own. Just about every mosque (and there are many) in Lomié is led by a Northern Imam, one of whom is named Alhadji Issa (but then again, isn’t everyone named Alhadji something-or-other up North?). Alhadji Issa is a nice old man perhaps 65 years old with a beard that rivals Gandolf the Great in Lord of the Rings. Alhadji Issa is the Imam at the central mosque and he has the habit of inviting me up on his veranda after I finish my run for maize porridge, beignets, and chai while he shows me the pagne he sells from Maroua. There are also the Fulbe cattle herders, who move their territory in town based on where their cows decided the best grass is that given day. These men are often seen wielding long sticks, chasing their cattle to and fro (sometimes right up the central street), and sipping endless mugs of chai. Then there is the meat market in the marché which is also solely run by Northerners, given that the best (and only) beef in village is from the aforementioned grass-fed cattle. Saturday mornings (meat market day) you can go to the meat window amidst the murmurs of “Jamm Nassara” (which means "Hello, white person" in Fulfulde) and buy a kilo of the best beef for 2$, often while the bloody, severed head of the cow your meat is coming from stares at you from the counter-top within elbow reach to your left. Moo. If you miss the morning cuts of beef, you can graze on the odd and end parts of the cow, which are grilled and pimented to perfection, for the rest of the day, which are sold in front of the meat window, amidst a gaggle of old, bearded Northerners talking rapidly in Fulfulde. Finally, there is the Fulfulde Café, as I call it, located right behind all the market mamas. This café is run by all Fulfulde-speaking Northerners and therefore is frequented only by Fulfulde-speaking Northerners, with the occasional exception of Grant and I. In addition to making the best veggie stuffed omelets and chai tea in town, the owner also cooks up traditional Northern fare, which actually looks quite delicious sometimes (although I’m sure I’d change my mind if I were to know exactly what that jumble of mystery meat and beans really is).

The third largest population in town are those from Douala. While they are not nearly as significant in number as the Bamoum and Fulbe, they are an influential bunch nonetheless. Those from Douala include Yannick, proprietor of the best bar in village, appropriately called “Polygone Bardancing” (I have yet to know what bardancing is, but I don’t really want to find out). Across the street, Yannick’s brother owns Chez Guys Paradise, a relatively large ‘supermarket’, for lack of a better word. There is also Dolly’s, owned by Dolly, next to Polygone, which serves traditional Cameroonian fare which more often than not leaves much to be desired. It also probably doesn’t help that usually Dolly is gutting some bloody mystery animal as you decidedly eat your vegetarian meal.

And if I needed further convincing of Lomié’s diversity, a crowd of Northerners just moved into the house next door, which was already quite loud enough to begin with. The house next to me is split in half, somewhat like an American single-story duplex. The left half has been long inhabited by a single mother (whom I refer to as “mon amie” because I can never remember her name) and her half dozen or so children, who I only know the names of simply because she shouts them all day long (though I don’t yet know which name belongs to which child. It also doesn’t help that each child has about 4 names they respond to. – “Are you Brenda, Bruna, or Michelle?’ ‘Yes, all of them are my names’. Ugh.). The right-hand side of the house now houses a family from the Extreme North, near Maroua. After being puzzled for two weeks by their random appearance, and after many unsuccessful demands of “Dude, what’s up with these Northerners next door?” to Grant, I finally mustered the courage today to get some answers. I complimented one of the daughters on her hijab as I walked back from the market and then I tried asking the young boy, who has gorgeous scarification on his cheeks – a true warrior in the making! – where his family was from, to which he responded with ‘I don’t know’. The father then came out of the house for the 5:00pm prayers and ordered his son to wash up. I talked with the dad a bit and found out they are from near Maroua. After he suggested I learn Fulfulde, he left to wash up and then joined his son for prayers in my front yard, next to the pee-stained mattress that needs airing out every day because mon amie’s infant pees on it every night.

So there you have it, “Cameroon in Miniature”.  Lomié has a country’s worth of cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities represented here, while also having the rain forest and some sporadic pockets of town that look quite savannah-ish or Sahelian-esque. When choosing my health post back in PST, my incurable indecisiveness had me torn up – do I choose a post in the North because it’s different than my previous experiences in Sierra Leone, or do I choose a post in the South and hit the ground running due to its familiarity? While I eventually settled on choosing Lomié (Francophone rainforest living was something I hadn’t experienced before, not even in Sierra Leone), it turns out that I ended up getting the best of all Cameroonian regions with my village. I get the calm Northern culture, the hard working populations of the West, and the occasional Anglophone from the Southwest.  I couldn’t be more lucky.

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